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An unconventional proposal to limit federal power

An etching of Alexander Hamilton Associated Press

An unconventional proposal to limit federal power

A new grassroots organization believes it has an answer for those who think the federal government is too big and abuses its power: a convention of states.

Michael Farris, founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association, and Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, launched the Convention of States project, an arm of Citizens for Self-Governance, last month to rally state legislators to hold an “Article V” convention to pass amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

These amendments would be designed to “stop the federal spending and debt spree, the power grabs of the federal courts, and other misuses of federal power,” according to the Convention of States’ handbook.

Article V of the U.S. Constitution allows Congress to approve constitutional amendments with a two-thirds vote, the method used for every successful amendment to date. But Article V also includes a second and less well-known provision for a convention. If two-thirds of states (34) apply, Congress must call a convention. To pass an amendment, three-fourths of states (38) must give their approval.

Farris believes the nation has reached a historic turning point at which states could be rallied to bypass Congress: “I’ve got seven [amendment propositions]. There will be others.”

Since America’s founding, 743 campaigns for an Article V convention have been proposed, with 697 coming in the 20th century. None have been successful, but an effort that begin in 1893 to force the direct election of U.S. senators eventually prodded Congress to pass the 17th Amendment in 1912, according to a Congressional Research Service paper by Thomas H. Neale.

More recently, an Article V movement for a balanced budget amendment began in 1975 but stalled in 1983. This year, legislators in five states (Kansas, Indiana, Georgia, Ohio, and South Dakota) have suggested or introduced legislation calling for a convention of states.

Farris argues that, if the states can agree on a subject, they have a much better shot at passing an amendment than previous movements. While the “spending and debt crisis,” the “regulatory crisis,” and “congressional attacks on state sovereignty” are leading concerns, he says his organization will provide a place to discuss possibilities and then collectively choose which to rally around.

The movement gained support with the August release of a book by conservative radio host Mark Levin, The Liberty Amendments, which calls for constitutional amendments to limit federal power. Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, has endorsed the idea of a convention. Even a few liberals see an Article V convention as an opportunity to push issues dear to progressives, such as ending the definition of corporate personhood and slowing the rollback of voter access laws.

But other conservatives are skeptical. Phyllis Schlafly of Concerned Women of America wrote a blistering TownHall.com column questioning whether Congress would even call a convention, despite Article V, and worrying about a “runaway convention” that would rewrite the Constitution and transform the American system.

“The whole process is a prescription for political chaos, controversy, and confrontation,” she wrote. “Alas, I don’t see any George Washingtons, James Madisons, Ben Franklins, or Alexander Hamiltons around today who could do as good a job as the Founding Fathers.”

Farris calls the fear of a runaway convention a “historical fallacy” of an “approved methodology.” He insists that rogue amendments would never earn the support of 38 states, and that significant legal safeguards exist to prevent such measures from becoming law.

Since its launch, the group is using its large grassroots network to encourage citizens to write to their legislators. Farris hopes to see new amendments within six years.

—with reporting by Les Sillars

Blake Adams Blake Adams is a student at Patrick Henry College, in Purcellville, Va.


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